Ceres felt horrible. She had almost killed her Husband. Again.
It didn't matter how many times he assured her that he was perfectly fine and that she couldn't have known that the ambush would let a Tier 3 ant slip through. The fact remained: her plan had nearly gotten him killed.
If he had really died, Ceres didn't know what she would have done. She had once declared that she would commit to Sati if he died before her but now that she thought about it, it was such a laughable course of action. It would be nothing as noble as a sacrifice in the name of their bond. It would just be a cowardly way to run from her guilt. Suicide, plain and simple.
Husband had snatched her life from the gate of death and she was ready to give it back to him. But it was only now that she was realizing that it wasn't an equivalent trade. Her life just wasn't valuable enough. Not when her two sisters were anxiously waiting for his safe return.
She wanted to blame the ones responsible of the ambush. She wanted to scream at them for their incompetence, for letting slip and forcing Husband to face a Tier 3 on his own. She hated that power-hungry she-wolf Hei Lian for placing her pride above the lives of the squad. If she hadn't been so stubborn about commanding the ambush, if she had listened to the suggestions of the Regiis earth mage who specialized in ambush warfare, Husband wouldn't have come so close to death. She wanted to just walk up and slap some sense into that hussy but… but… her current status meant that she had to bottle it all up lest the rest of the squad decide to stop giving her a chance to prove herself. She was walking on eggshells and she knew it.
Already, she had heard quite a few muted conversations about how she was a crafty woman that wasn't above using her Husband as bait mingled with praises for Mars and his boundless prospects. She wanted to refute their claims, tell them that she was only deploying the most appropriate candidate for the job. Mars was faster than Marshal Canis and due to her precarious status among the squad, if she had asked the Marshal to be the bait instead, she knew that the squad would react much more strongly.
Her logic told her that she had done nothing wrong and that it wasn't her fault. Her emotions though, were more inclined to believe the malicious remarks spoken behind her back. Maybe she was a crafty woman. Maybe treachery was in her blood. After all, everything she had done had ended up harming Mars one way or the other.
A strong hand, calloused from years of hard martial training, grabbed her chin and tilted her head back. Her cinnamon brown eyes met crimson pupils that peered deep into her soul. "Girl," he growled, "If you dare to let their nonsense make you cry, I'll kiss you here and now till you pass out. That'll show them."
She couldn't help it, a tear rolled down her cheek. It was from her happiness at his unwavering trust, but he didn't know that. He swooped down and stole her lips and wrapped her in his strong arms. He breathed fire into her… a fire that seared away her doubt and negativity until there was only the awareness of his lips on hers.
She didn't know how long they remained joined together, only that by the time he let her go, her sight was darkening around the edges from the lack of air. She breathed deeply, supported by his sturdy chest, listening to his heart as she waited for her shaky legs to listen to her again. She thought she heard the cheers of some of the members of the squad. She didn't care.
She had told Mars once that no words other that his or his family's would affect her. She had lied. Hei Lian's description of her as a burden had hurt but she had pretended otherwise. But now, she was confident. If she were to repeat those words now, they would be the absolute truth.
Zoya Canis was anxious. She had been from the moment she had heard Aeryn's weak voice at the mind crystal communication tower. He was her only friend in the entire regiment and he was dying. She had to save him.
He was an anomaly. While the other nobles avoided her, he was the only one who treated her normally, without any ulterior motive.
The thing is, while reaching Tier 3 from a commoner background was extremely praiseworthy and rewarded with a noble title, that was only for the males. For females, the ladder to power worked a bit differently. The first turning point was when and whether they turned Feral. If they turned Feral, then they had an opportunity to marry into any noble family who was looking to increase their numbers. Depending on how young they turned Feral, their desirability increased.
But if a girl didn't turn Feral, they were mostly doomed to the life of a commoner. Oh, they weren't barred from joining the Internal Police or the Military or even discriminated against. Nothing like that. It was just that their low bloodline density meant that they would never reach Tier 3 no matter how hard they tried.
Zoya Canis was an exception. She had teetered on the verge of Tier 3 for two whole years before finding a mana-mutated plant that had helped her overcome the barrier and step into Tier 3. Thus, by Regiis law, she had been awarded the title of nobility and all the benefits that came with it. She had received her promotion as usual. But her lucky promotion had won her the disdain of the other nobles.
At this point, the usual procedure would be for her to get married and start expanding her clan or to attach to another clan through marriage but her poor bloodline density earned her the rejection of the nobles who were extremely focused on improving the talent of their progeny. That and the fact that without the ability to turn Feral, their marriage would just be a paper contract not a proper magical one. Some commoners had proposed to her but she had rejected them. Not because she was a snob, but because she had seen the naked ambition in their eyes.
Aeryn had been a breath of fresh air. She hadn't seen anything untoward in his gaze. He had just wanted her for a friend.
The man was as odd as she was. He clearly had noble roots. His polished vocabulary and mannerisms gave it away. Yet, he had worked his way up to the top just like an ordinary commoner. Unlike her, he had no dearth of suitors. His reputation might be a bit dark but that only added to his mystery and she personally knew many young girls who really admired him and wouldn't hesitate if he asked for their hand in marriage if they turned Feral. But he had rejected every proposal with the same reason: he wanted to focus on reaching Tier 4 before he considered marriage. A declaration that might sound arrogant from the lips of a Tier 3 with a commoner lineage but from him, with his noble roots, no one thought it strange.
Although, her ordinary mindset found a marriage between an eighteen-year-old girl and a forty-year-old man strange, when one considered that a Tier 4 would live for nearly a hundred and fifty years, it became easier to accept.
After her social disappointments, his willingness to befriend her had moved her. He had encouraged her to focus on her cultivation and not let something like talent get in her way. Both of them had trained together, helping each other along the martial path, reaching the peak of Tier 3 at the same time. She knew that she had reached the end of her road then but he would soon outstrip her and get married. Would he still have time for their light-hearted banter then? The thought had made her sad… but not as much as the thought of losing him permanently.
She focused her will on her shadows, making them spread and seep into every nook and cranny of the mountain top.
He had to be alive. He had to.
The earth mage who had been sitting cross-legged nearby, sensing the vibrations of the earth, opened his eyes. "Marshal! Found him!"
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